Now that we’re neck deep in election campaigning, we’re all used to the attack ads and the “fact checking” behind them showing how many of them struggle with being truthful. But most campaigns get this and move on (or they release their own attack ads that are just as bad). However, incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham (from California) is so spitting mad at the attack ad against him that he’s suing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and various local TV stations who ran the ad. First of all, the ad doesn’t sound particularly different than plenty of typical campaign ads, many of which distort the records of opponents. Most candidates respond with a simple explanation of why the ad is a lie. But Denham decided to go that extra mile and actually file a lawsuit.
There are a few interesting/bizarre things to note here. First, the DCCC that he’s suing is led by… other Congressional Reps. So he’s basically suing a bunch of his existing colleagues in the House. I know that partisan politics can get rough, but lawsuits between existing members of Congress over an attack ad… that seems somewhat excessive.
Even if we get past that, and even if we accept that the attack ad goes so far above and beyond the norm that it’s considered defamation (which is quite tough with a public figure where it would need to be shown that the mistruths were done willfully and maliciously), the fact that Denham is suing the TV stations who aired the ad is just crazy. He claims that he “warned” them, but the details of the lawsuit show that he warned them on October 24th… and filed the lawsuit on October 25th. Not much in the way of warning. While there aren’t direct “safe harbors” a la Section 230 for online content, there are still serious questions about whether or not it makes sense to make a TV station liable for the content of an advertisement.
Even if he feels he has to hit back to counter the narrative in the ads, it seems quite likely that such a lawsuit could backfire, showing a politician with exceptionally thin skin, which tends not to be a useful trait in the job. Yes, attack ads suck. But it’s the nature of the business. Suing other politicians and TV stations just seems like a massive overreaction and excessive poor judgment.